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Like most realtors, Scott Petersen lives - and dies - by the phone. It’s his most important business tool. It’s how new business comes in, it’s how he keeps in touch with clients, it’s how he manages his team. It took Petersen a few tries to get his phone system working exactly the way he wanted, but since subscribing to VirtualOne, a virtual PBX service from GotVMail Communications LLC, he figures he’s finally nailed it.

Based in Salt Lake City, Utah, Petersen is a partner with Keller Williams Realty, a national firm, but he operates his residential real estate business semi-autonomously as Scott Petersen Real Estate Group at Keller Williams Realty. He has his own dedicated team - an assistant, listing coordinator and transaction coordinator - and until recently, even had his own office.

One Number for Everything

Most importantly, Petersen has his own telephone number, a local Utah number that appears in all his advertising - on radio, television, billboards, etc. It was a strategy he devised a couple of years ago to take tighter control of his business. He calls it his “market expansion number.”

“Being a real estate agent,” he explains, “I always want to control my number. If I used a company number, when I moved [companies] and had to change numbers, I would lose all that business. Not that I’m going to move because I love Keller Williams. But even if I never moved, I’d still want every call to come directly to me.”

Petersen was reminded recently why he wants that control. A call that nobody on his team could take ended up bouncing to the Keller Williams switchboard in Salt Lake City. The receptionist was new to the job and didn’t know him or his team, which was working out of a different office at the time. So she passed the call to another broker. It turned out to be a new client with a listing. “That missed phone call cost me $4,000,” Petersen says.

Owning his own number and using it in all his marketing was a good idea as far as it went. Before GotVMail, Petersen call-forwarded the number to his cell phone to ensure he spoke personally to every new or repeat buyer or seller. The one thing he hadn’t taken into consideration is that after those callers became clients, they often didn’t need to speak to him when they called but to one of his team. Yet all the calls kept coming to him and he had to handle or transfer them.

“That’s the problem I set out to solve,” Petersen says.

Virtual phone systems such as GotVMail offer the perfect solution. They give subscribers a local or toll-free number to use in marketing, plus enterprise-grade PBX functions such as voice mail, automated attendant, call routing, dial by name, paperless fax receipt and music on hold. These are features otherwise available only in office phone systems that cost thousands or tens of thousands of dollars.

How It Works

There are three levels of VirtualOne service ranging in price from $9.95 to $39.95 per month - plus per-minute charges. Subscribers pay from 4.8 to 7.4 cents per minute for each incoming call minute, depending on the minute plan. Subscribers who sign up for 1,000 minutes a month pay $48, for example. There are no additional charges for forwarding calls.

Each VirtualOne service includes basic PBX services and at least five “mailboxes.” Petersen pays $19.95 for The VirtualOne Advanced service, which gives him ten mailboxes and a few additional features, including dial-by-name and fax receipt.

A VirtualOne mailbox is a conventional voice mailbox, but also works like an extension, which callers can choose from an auto attendant menu. The system doesn’t transfer calls to internal extensions, though, it forwards them to other phone numbers. They could be regular phone lines, cell phones or VoIP numbers - anywhere on the continent.

Petersen didn’t want to switch from using his local Utah number, so he has the telephone company line call-forwarded to his VirtualOne number. Now when customers, prospects and colleagues call the Utah number, they no longer go automatically to his cell phone. Instead, they hear an automated attendant greeting that lets them choose from several options, including dialing by name.

Call Screening

The auto attendant asks callers to press one if they’re phoning about a new listing or a new home search. Those are the calls Petersen wants to field personally, so they get forwarded to his cell phone. He uses the VirtualOne Call Announce/Screening feature. When callers press one, the GotVMail system asks them to say their names. When the call goes through to his cell phone, the system tells him which extension the call is coming from, and then he hears the caller’s name.

“So now I know what the purpose of the call is,” he says. “It gives me a little bit of information prior to taking that call, which is useful.”

Other auto attendant options route callers to members of his team - during business hours. The VirtualOne Day and Night Mode and After-hours Greeting features lets him program the system so after-hours calls are routed directly to voice mail. He also uses the feature for his own calls, although he’s available well past 5 p.m.

“At some point you’ve got to shut it off,” he says. “So now I have an after-hours greeting and callers at least feel they’ve been communicated with. They know they’ll get a call tomorrow. And that all happens automatically, depending on what schedule I’ve programmed in.”

Petersen uses a bunch of other VirtualOne features. The system will send voice messages to the company’s e-mail boxes as MP3 attachments so they only have one place to look for all their messages. He himself usually calls in for his messages because he’s on the go and away from a computer most of the time. But the e-mailed version of the message is also there as a back-up when he returns to the office.

The VirtualOne call-logging feature is a huge boon. If he doesn’t take a caller’s number down correctly or loses the number, he can use the GotVMail Web portal and go into his call logs and find the call, with the calling line number, by date and time.

He only recently realized he could also use his VirtualOne number to receive faxes. Now his one-number-for-everything - his local Utah number - is also his fax number. GotVMail automatically detects that the call is a fax, receives it and forwards it to an e-mail box as an attachment.

Calculating the Benefits Petersen says the cost benefits are difficult to measure - so far. He’s only been using the system for a couple of months. It will certainly cost less than the $700 a month he was paying at one point to lease a phone system in his own office. Most important, though, is the confidence that he won’t miss vital calls, or be inundated with calls.

“Some people might look at this as an expense,” he says. “But for me, I see it as making me money. I know for a fact that one missed phone call can cost me $4,000.”

He also likes the way it lets him project a very professional image - the automated attendant, music on hold and call screening - while letting him keep control of his number, and his business. Implementing the dial-by-name feature for a four-person office was “pure ego,” he admits, but it’s all part of using the service to enhance image. “And if for some reason the office shuts down, for a meeting or something, VirtualOne still projects that professional image.”

Petersen looked at other similar solutions, but chose GotVMail because he liked the fact that he could configure the system - set up the auto attendant, mailboxes and schedules, etc. - using a Web interface. “I decided that going Web based is where it’s at, that it was really slick,” he says. It took him about three hours to configure his system and much of that was time spent thinking about how he wanted it to work.

He’s still tinkering. He has a couple of mailboxes he’s not currently using and could use to provide outgoing marketing information to callers. When he has everything exactly the way he wants it, he’ll have GotVMail do professionally recorded greetings for his auto attendant. In the meantime, though, VirtualOne is delivering everything he was looking for and more.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s. Just for fun, he also authors features and columns on digital photography for Here’s How, a spiffy Canadian consumer technology magazine.